“Everyone should have some form of creative expression,” says American Idol Top 5 finalist Fritz Hager. “I read once that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to learn something proficiently. I started writing songs as soon as I could.”
If you live in Tyler, it is almost certain you have heard of Fritz Hager III. The local media had a field day reporting on his progress throughout his time on the American Idol television talent show. When he made it through the first auditions and was selected as a Top 24 Contestant, Fritz became an overnight celebrity … at least in his hometown of Tyler, Texas.
Born in Dallas on November 3, 1999, Fritz moved with his family to Tyler when he was a ten-year-old. His dad, Fritz Hager, Jr., grew up in Tyler, graduating from Robert E. Lee High School and then joining the military, attending the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. After the army, he spent many years running companies in Atlanta and Dallas. “When Dad got out of the military, he became a pastor. One of his friends from West Point called him out of the blue, and told him that Tyler’s Bethel Bible Church was looking for an executive pastor. I grew up going to church twice a week; youth group on Wednesday nights and every Sunday morning,” Fritz remembers.
Music was always part of his life. Going to church and hearing the choir and the worship praise band had a lasting effect throughout his childhood. “As I got older, I really loved the idea of music. When I was in the sixth grade, about twelve years old, I started begging my parents for a guitar. A couple of years later, I got my first guitar. It was a Yamaha acoustic and I took lessons at Mundt Music for about a year. Once I got the basics down, I branched off and did my own thing. I remember after my first lesson I had learned four chords: F, C, A minor and G. I wrote my first song after that first lesson. It was really bad,” Fritz says laughing. “I was not very good at the guitar, and I was a bad songwriter; but that it is how I began. I read that Ed Sheeran once said, ‘Songwriting is like clearing a clogged pipe. You have to keep water running through it until fresh water starts running through it again.’ I’ve been running water through that pipe ever since hearing that.”
Fritz is the second oldest of six children born to Sarina and Fritz Hager, Jr. His mother became a lawyer, but after getting married, spent many years as a stay-at-home mom rearing her children: (in order by age) Jack, Fritz, Henry, Joe, Lucy and Sam. She recently opened a law firm and is looking forward to getting back in the saddle to once again practice law. His father is now attending law school, as well as currently holding the rank of Major in the Texas State Guard, where he serves as a Chaplain. “An interesting coincidence I learned while on American Idol,” Fritz remarks, “is that the hair dresser on the show drove tanks in the same division as my dad, only a year later.”
After attending public schools in Tyler—Owens, Hubbard and Lee—Fritz spent a semester at Oklahoma City University as a Vocal Performance, Musical Theatre major. “I dropped out after one semester. I decided it was the wrong school for me. Every day, I was doing something my heart was not in, and it ate away at me. I came home for Christmas break and told my parents, ‘I can’t go back.’” As they had always been, his parents were supportive of his decision. Despite having left the campus, Fritz believes he did learn some valuable things about theatre and vocal performance during his time at OK City University. “I am grateful for the time I spent there, though it was very short!”
When the auditions for American Idol were announced on Instagram, Fritz decided to try his hand at it. “My aunt who lives in Italy, and has always been my number one fan, helped me make that decision. She told me, ‘You are not in school … There’s nothing tying you down … You are young. If you want to go for it, now is the time to do it!’ That was when I made up my mind to go for it!”
The first auditions were held via Zoom in August 2021. “After I made it through that, my dad and I went to Austin for the five days of the live auditions held there. It was cool to see the inner workings of the show from that vantage point. It was like seeing the show through a different lens. That was the first time I was ever filmed for a TV Show. At first, it was overwhelming, but I met a lot of interesting people.”
MAKING THE CUT
Making it through the “local auditions” in Austin gave Fritz the opportunity to go to Hollywood Week, which took place about two months later. “Hollywood Week was like the best kind of torture. Really emotionally overwhelming. It was almost like a bootcamp for musicians but mixed in with a creative artist camp. We definitely didn’t sleep much; but I grew a lot during that week. The coolest thing about Idol was meeting people I would never have met. There were so many artists, crazy artists you never get to see on TV after all the editing is done … There were 190 participants to start, but we ended the week with just twenty-four.”
Fritz describes the overall Idol experience as being like riding a roller coaster. Each segment of the early part of the show, all the videotaped segments that take the participants through the auditioning process to the selection of the final twenty-four, become progressively more challenging. “It’s like going up steadily and then coming down fast,” he says in an attempt to explain the roller-coaster aspect. “Then, with each new segment, the ride gets higher and the pace gets faster.”
A month passed between being selected as one of the Top 24 and the next part of the show. For this segment, the Top 24 were flown to Aulani, the Disney Resort & Spa in Hawaii. “It was a really nice resort, and that part of the show became my favorite. It was less stressful and we all finally got to know each other. It was the first time we really had the chance to connect with one another,” says Fritz. It was during this experience that the contestants were introduced to the industry professionals who were there to give them vocal lessons and start making their individual song arrangements.
“This was our first opportunity to work with the band we performed with on the show. That was such an incredible experience because those guys are incredibly professional and so great at what they do. The band is led by Kris Pooley who, as one of his many gigs, is the music director for Katy Perry. I think he also did work with Lionel Ritchie,” Fritz explained, an excited kid getting his first taste of the life with other professional musicians. “The band made the experience better. Not easy, but better.”
While the Hawaii segment gave the Top 24 time to bond, it was also filled with the intense work of putting together the songs each of the contestants would perform on the show. “The biggest thing I learned during that time was the challenge of singing songs, made famous by someone else, and bringing my own interpretation to them. While it sounds like you’re just singing covers, you’re not. You have to find these records that speak to you and then you have to make them your own. Kris Pooley worked with us on the arrangements, helping us find those sweet spots where I could shine through someone else’s record.”
When Fritz got the opportunity to perform his own original songs on the show, he was elated. “It was the first time I had ever played my own songs with a real band. That was a kick, especially collaborating with a pro. Kris helped with the arrangements, but he didn’t try to change my songs. He was there to help make them better.” Before the show’s season was over, Fritz became the first contestant on American Idol to perform two of his original songs on the same episode of the show. For most of the rest of the competition, Fritz worked with vocal coaches Adriana McPhee (her sister Katherine McPhee was runner-up on Idol’s fifth season and has gone on to a big career in music) and Phredley Brown (who tours with Bruno Mars). “Phredley is amazing. He would listen to my ideas about my song; then, he would work with me to get it across to an audience. I looked forward to vocal coaching every day. I sang a lot of songs and learned so much. They both made the whole experience worthwhile for me!”
In Fritz’s opinion, his overall best performance was the night he did a cover of Billie Eilish’s “When the Party’s Over.” “I came to them with a weird, folksy arrangement that included an accordion. That was the most rewarding night for me. I went on right after Phillip Phillips played, and when I was done, I saw I’d made all three judges cry. That said, looking back on it now, I’m really proud of every performance I had on the show. I wouldn’t change anything.” The night he sang Harry Styles’ “Golden” was also a special night for him. “Making the Top 14 that night was the best moment. That was the first time my parents were in the studio audience, which was special, and while performing, I got emotional, and that came across for the audience. The votes had happened the night before, and the judges chose the remaining four that evening and I was the last one locked-in for the Top 10. It was stressful; but so rewarding.”
The Top 7 show was the week that Fritz tested positive for COVID and was not able to perform live. Instead, the judges saw a taped replay of the rehearsal performance of two of his original compositions, “All My Friends” and “The Ocean.” The judges were blown away, propelling Fritz into the Top 5. The Top 5 Show is the one where the contestants are winnowed down to three. Alas, after singing covers of “I Wanna Remember” by NEEDTOBREATHE and “Youngblood” by 5 Seconds of Summer, Fritz was finally eliminated from the competition.
However, he was not sent home. At the time of his elimination, Fritz was quoted, “I’ll be honest, ending it here is tough, but I am so incredibly grateful. For the friends. For the memories. For the music. This is not the end, it’s just page one.” Because he had made it so far in the competition, he was able to perform on the finale show the following Sunday. The Top 10 finalists all participated in the show, singing together in group numbers. For his final Idol performance, Fritz played acoustic guitar and sang a duet, “Can I Be Him,” with English singer/songwriter James Arthur, of whom Fritz remarked, “He is an awesome guy!”
“Being on the show was a dream come true. My goal now is to keep the ball rolling!”
he says with his characteristic laugh.
“The show gave me the confidence to know I can make a career out of this. I can support myself while playing music. I really want a career in music. Getting paid to perform is still crazy for me. I used to play at the Famer’s Market for tips. Now, I have a booking to play with Leah Marlene (she came in third on this year’s Idol) in her hometown of Normal, Illinois. She and I became close friends during our time on Idol together. I don’t know a lot of professional musicians in Tyler, but Idol introduced me to a lot of musicians, some well-known and some who are about to become well-known.”
Upon his return to Tyler, Fritz’s name was on the marquis at the Liberty Theatre downtown. A concert was organized at True Vine where the reserved tables sold out in ten minutes. “I want to thank the people of Tyler for their support,” says Fritz “When I was on the show, we were in this little bubble, so it was hard to really feel and experience all of the support that everyone in Tyler was showing me back home. Honestly, that’s what made coming home such an incredible experience. The other thing I’ve been loving is that I had been involved in the local arts scene before Idol. I was in a couple of plays at Tyler Civic Theatre, and I sang on the square, but it didn’t feel like there were a ton of spaces to perform in. When I came home, I was asked to play in a lot of different venues, and it really warms my soul to see the community opening up places where local artists can perform.”
Fritz always had a soft spot for downtown, especially the days when he would play at The Foundry, sometimes when there were only two or three people listening. “I started playing live music there when I was in high school,” Fritz recalls. “When they held a watch party at The Foundry the night my first audition aired, it was like coming full circle. It was quite a difference from my days playing for two people to seeing the place packed with people on the night of the watch party! I played a twenty-minute set before the show aired. There were camera crews, and the place was packed. That was the first time I was able to experience the support of my hometown. It makes me happy to see downtown coming alive again.”
The Idol experience has changed his life. Although he believes himself to be basically very shy and admittedly awkward in social situations, the attention from Idol has been a two-edged sword. People recognized him at the airport as he was leaving LA for Dallas. And although part of the training he received while working on Idol included prepping the contestants for how to handle strangers approaching them in public, it was still a tough adjustment when people actually started coming up to him. “In one way it is very gratifying that people think they know me and will speak to me. It’s also a little weird to have people come up to me and want to take a selfie when I’m eating in a restaurant.”
When he came home, he did not leave his house for several days and then went to Florida with his family on a brief vacation. “My parents were excited when I would get recognized. I think my siblings like it because they love anything that embarrasses me … It is fun meeting people. But it is also a little strange. My parents would spot people looking at me and you could tell they were wondering, ‘Is that the guy from American Idol?’ Sometimes they would just walk by and glance at us. They would then follow for a few paces. When that would happen, my parents would speak in a louder voice, ‘Hey, look! They remember you from American Idol!’ or something else that would attract attention. I was mortified. But at the same time, I understand it goes with the territory. If you want a career in the limelight you have to learn to deal with the people who want to meet you, politely. After all, it is the fans that will make or break your career as a performer.”
A NEW CHAPTER
Now that the show is over, Fritz can focus on next steps, starting with his live performances and working on new music. “I think of myself as a songwriter first. Writing songs is my real passion, but I love playing live. Typically, I’m a solo act and perform acoustic with just me and my guitar. I feel like my vocals and the guitar mesh together; however, I got a full band together for the True Vine show. One of the guys from that band recorded my EP and played electric guitar on it. I love performing my own music whenever I can … and I love playing that music live. I love the reaction from the crowd listening. What is more satisfying is writing a song and having it connect with the audience. That’s where I see myself in the business side of music.”
Fritz is now standing on a precipice. He has learned a great deal about the business, about how to improve his performance technically, and how to inject his personality into his stage work. More than anything, he has learned more about himself. At this point in his young career, he is experiencing a modicum of success. The door is open for him to go through and see whether he has what it takes to make the “big time.” He knows there is much hard work ahead and that he must be diligent and must have complete dedication to achieve his goals. He also knows that he has been given a great opportunity and that the Idol experience is a leg up toward reaching his musical goals. “My success or failure is up to me. I know that. I’ve been riding the roller coaster for the past year. That’s not a long time. It’s been a great ride so far and I’m looking forward to riding it all the way.”